HOW TO: make a three-panel skirt have pockets

Okay, I've been putting off doing a HOWTO here because, frankly, I'm not really a great seamstress. I've never taken a formal class, and every time I read an issue of Threads I say to myself "Huh! That *would* be a better way to do that." But I figured I'd post this one, for a couple reasons. First of all, even though I'm not that great at it (nothing like Summerset, for one, or Rostitchery, for another!) I really do enjoy sewing, and so at least I can reassure people than even if you aren't couture-caliber you can make stuff that fits and have fun doing it. Secondly, I figured if I post this people will tell me what I did wrong, and that way next time I can do it faster/better/more attractively. And finally, I just HATE PATTERNS THAT DON'T HAVE POCKETS. So by posting this I can rescue one more pattern from the evils of pocketlessness.

Anyway. There it is.

So, what will you need to do this project?

  • a sewing machine
  • an iron and ironing board
  • flat space to work
  • scissors, tape measure, ruler, pencil or marking implement, etc. etc.
  • Diet Coke or similar beverage
  • music with a good beat but off-kilter or oddly nihilistic lyrics (I like Soul Coughing, They Might Be Giants, Magnetic Fields, etc.)
  • fabric (about two yards of 45" wide for the pattern shown here, 1 3/4 yards if it's 60" wide)
  • a suitable pattern (see below)

Simplicity 3961

(Okay, okay, OKAY. I know that pattern has gauchos. Ignore them. Pretend they aren't there. It's okay, we won't even be TOUCHING those pieces. Don't worry. Would I lead you into gauchos? I would not. You can trust me.)

Now, pretty much any skirt pattern with a center panel and two side panels will work for this project. I chose this Simplicity pattern because 1) I like contour waistbands and 2) it was $1 at JoAnn's on Saturday, so I could buy two. Why two? Because I'm lazy, and part of this project involves doubling a pattern piece. This way I could just use another part from the second pattern, and not have to trace it. $1 is cheap for not having to trace!

For this project I decided to use view B of this pattern, which is the blue skirt in the illustration. A, B, and C are basically the same, just differing lengths. The first thing I had to figure out is what size to make, so I could pull those pattern pieces and put them aside.

Now, I have a small waist in proportion to my hips (or a big butt in proportion to my waist, calling Sir Mix-A-Lot) so I checked those measurements, and sure enough, the size that was right in the hips would be too big in the waist. (Also, this pattern is made to be worn 1" below the waist, which I Don't Do.)

Now, I've made a lot of Simplicity skirts lately, including another one with a yoke, and so I grabbed the yoke pattern I knew fit me and laid it over the yoke pattern for this skirt. That confirmed for me that I needed a size 12 waistband but a size 14 skirt. What to do?

waistband pocket how-to

Well, I took the pieces for the size 12 waistband and cut them on the 12 line at the top edge, but at the 14 at the bottom edge, fudging between them at the sides, so that it would fit at the waist but still be able to be attached to the size 14 skirt. Then I cut out the rest of the pattern pieces from the pattern sheets, making sure to have *two* side front pieces, one from one pattern and one from the other.

That done, the next thing I had to do was to get rid of the pleats in that side front piece, cute as they are, because I thought they would interfere with putting in pockets. Now, I looked to hell and gone all over the Internet for the "right" way to do this, but I couldn't find any instructions, so this is just my usual half-assery: I took the pattern pieces and taped the pleats shut, tapering all the way down to the edge.

But this made me worry that taking that pleat out would make the hips too narrow, so I decided to measure the hips just to make sure. To do this, I put the pattern pieces together, overlapping the seam allowances, and marked where my hip is (about 9" below my waist, you can see a black mark on the center front piece where I measured this). Then I measured across to make sure there would be enough room for my hips (whew! there was).

hip measurement pocket how-to

That done, it was time to figure out where to place the pocket on the side front piece. I held up the pattern to myself, making sure to place the top of it lower than the waist (because the pattern has a waistband). Then I let my hand fall to where I would want a pocket, and marked that.

Then I cut three of the side front piece, out of a scrap I had lying around:

pocket how-to

Why three? Because the pocket in the panel has three parts. There's the part of the skirt above the pocket opening (which also includes the 'back' of the pocket), the part of the skirt below the pocket opening, and the part, not visible, that is the 'inside' of the pocket (which is like a facing on the part of the skirt below the pocket opening).

So I took these three pieces and laid them out. Unfortunately, none of these pictures turned out, and OF COURSE it's the most difficult part of making this. Ugh.

Anyway here are the three pattern pieces you end up with (the skirt, the top and underpocket, and the pocket facing). I cut the facing out of a piece of pattern tissue that I had lying around (literally, it was on the floor). You can use any kind of paper. Do write which is which on the facing piece, though, it saves a lot of heartache later. I don't know how many pocket facings I've made and then thrown away by accident!

waistband pocket how-to

So how did I get from three of the same piece to three different pieces? Well, you're cutting the bottom off the bottommost piece of the pocket sandwich (everything below the bottom of the inside pocket seam). You're cutting the top off the topmost piece of the pocket sandwich (everything above the top edge of the pattern — but DON'T FORGET to leave a seam allowance, or your pocket will be 5/8ths of a inch lower on your body than you expected). Then you cut the same top and bottom off the pocket facing (the middle part of the pocket sandwich) to make the pocket facing.

waistband pocket how-to

The darker blue is the bottommost layer, towards t
he top of the skirt. You can see how deep the pocket will be (the pin) and the black line shows the added seam allowance for the bottom pocket seam (yes I draw on fabric with china markers).

Here's me making sure the pocket is exactly where I want it (the floral thing there is my keychain clipped to the pocket of the skirt I'm actually wearing, as opposed to the one I'm making):

waistband pocket how-to

(This is from my point-of-view, e.g., leaning over and upside-down.)

I was happy with this, so then I figured I could make a "real" (that is, wearable) skirt! Yay! But I still didn't want to use great fabric, so I used a piece of lightweight denim I had hanging around. Here's the three back pieces all sewn together:

waistband pocket how-to

(I left the pleats in at the back.)

But the plain denim fabric seemed a little boring to me. How could I spice it up? I know! Zippers! Yellow zippers!

waistband pocket how-to

You see, when you make this kind of pocket, the top edge can be all wiggly and pulled out of shape, unless you reinforce it with twill tape. Zippers have built-in twill tape, and they make a nice design element.

So get a plastic separating zipper (like the kind that you use to make jackets with). Cut away the teeth of the zipper that would go in the seam allowance (about 1/2 inch on either side, as in the photo above) — you do NOT want the sewing machine needle to hit a zipper tooth!

Of course, the picture of sewing the zipper trim on to the skirt piece didn't come out, either, but what I did was: sew the zipper to the skirt piece, teeth facing down towards the hem. Sew the pocket facing to the skirt piece, right sides together. Then turn and topstitch, like so:

waistband pocket how-to

When you're done, it will look like this:

waistband pocket how-to

Then, to assemble, you want to attach the underpocket to the pocket facing piece, like so:

waistband pocket how-to

I seamed the bottom (this picture is fuzzy) and then double-zigzagged the edges, because this fabric is a bit ravelly.

waistband pocket how-to

Then you baste the whole sandwich together. (When you're sewing over the zipper part, even though you trimmed away the teeth in the seam allowance, you probably want to hand-crank the machine. Hitting zipper teeth at speed is Not Fun.)

waistband pocket how-to

This is what it looks like when you're done:

waistband pocket how-to

See how the stitching down the side is within the seam allowance? I used to baste at the seamline and then had to pick out the bits that showed. I'm marginally smarter now.

Then you do it all again for the other side. Here's the front assembled:

waistband pocket how-to

NOTE: Do not let your iron run over the plastic zipper teeth. They WILL melt!

Then you keep going and assemble the rest of the skirt. Here's the waistband going on — why did I sew a line of stitching around the bottom of the waistband facing?

waistband pocket how-to

This is why — it makes a nice guideline for turning it under!

waistband pocket how-to

Now, time to baste in the zipper. If I'd been thinking, I would have bought a bright yellow zipper for the side zip, too, but I wasn't thinking (and in fact the other zippers were bought more than a year ago for another project), so blue it is.

waistband pocket how-to

And actually, my first try at sewing in the zipper was completely crappy, but I offer it here to you to show you how bad a sewer I can be:

waistband pocket how-to

So I took it out and redid it (and I re-threaded the machine in blue, because no sense in drawing attention to the zipper!). But this is getting really long, so here's where we skip to the end:

waistband pocket how-to

The pockets aren't really uneven: I'm just standing funny. And the skirt is a bit too long; I think I'll shorten it by about two inches next time I make this. It's a bit dowdy at this length.

The whole process (not counting the time it took me to find & buy the pattern) was about three and a half hours. Two hours to do the measuring, planning, preliminary cutting, and prototyping, and one and a half hours to make up the whole skirt (including cutting out the new fabric and re-doing the side zipper). The skirt is hemmed with yellow bias tape, applied by machine.

I didn't prewash the plastic zipper I used for the pocket trim, because it is made of pure polyester. If I were going to use a vintage zipper (or an upholstery zipper) with metal teeth and a cotton tape, I definitely would have prewashed the zipper. If you had long enough zippers (or were okay with lapping them) you could have also inserted zippers into the long front seams between the panels. You could also use piping, braid, or rickrack to trim the pocket edges.

Okay, that's ONE WAY to make front pockets on a panel skirt. If you have a different way, do leave it in the comments! If I left out an important step (as I am wont to do), ask for clarification in the com
ments! (The plant to my right in the picture (your left) is lavender, so you don't have to ask about it in the comments, and my tights are from H&M, last year. Everything else, ask about it in the comments!)

What do you get if you don't use a thimble? A "D". And this dress.

1930s dot dress

Jody (from Couture Allure Vintage) sent me this link to one of her auctions, and it's adorable. Even better is the backstory — check it out!

1930s dot dress

That's right. Some horrible sewing instructor gave poor Dorrice a "D" on this gorgeous dress, all because she didn't use a thimble. Come on! This is an "A" dress, no question.

This kind of thing (nonsensical rules-for-rules'-sake thinking) really gets on my nerves. Sure, you can, as a teacher, make students prove they know how to use a thimble. But that should be a ten-minute observation, at best, not a whole dress! (I have never used a thimble for dressmaking — quilting, sure, but not dressmaking. If I want to stab my finger repeatedly with a needle, that's my right as an American.)

When you demand that everyone do something one way and one way only, you completely stifle innovation, AND you instill a knee-jerk distaste for the methods you're teaching. If your way is really the right way (or, more rarely, the ONLY way) then people will naturally gravitate to it, but you have to give them the chance to do things their own half-assed way. What is obligatory is usually disdained.

You can certainly say "I've always done X this way, and it works for me," but unless you're teaching your clone army to sew, other people are going to have different techniques: some from random chance, some from sheer pigheadedness, and some from outright brilliance. People who gave out "D"s for lack of a thimble probably never got to see the outright brilliance. Good thing the dress survived, so we could!

Are you reading FI? You should be reading FI.

welt pocket

La Bella Donna recently pointed out to me that I haven't linked to Fashion Incubator, which astonished me, but I checked, and she was right, I haven't! But I'm doing it with a vengeance now, because I read that site all the time, and I think everyone else should, too …. well, anyone who's interested in clothing production, because FI (run by the incredibly knowledgeable Kathleen) talks about how commercial, retail clothes really get made.

There's this huge gap in the fashion press that FI fills in. Usually you hear about the Designer-with-a-capital-D, who dreams up the clothes, and maybe there's an arty, floaty sketch or two … and then there's a picture of the actual item (on a clothes-hanger model, of course). Sometimes, MAYBE, there will be a mention of some handwork being done; embroidery, or pleating, or whatnot, but otherwise, there's just a big void: nothing about the patternmaking, the construction sewing, the fabric sourcing … you could just as easily assume the Brownies showed up overnight and sewed everything up for a bowl of milk. And that's the amount of attention paid to high-end stuff; lower-end stuff's production gets NO attention, unless someone finds out it's done in a sweatshop somewhere overseas.

But if you read Fashion Incubator, you learn all the gritty details. What makes a good commercial pattern? How do you source fabric? How do you find the people you need to work with, and how do you judge their work? How do you get your clothes into stores, and when? Fashion is, after all, a business, and FI is the trade blog of the production side of that business.

Personally, I *love* trade magazines, and I always have. When I had a not-so-great job working in a dry cleaners in high school, the best part was reading American Drycleaner magazine. (The next best part was folding starched men's dress shirts … you see, there was this special machine … but I digress.) It was like Christmas when our mail carrier misdelivered a copy of a welding journal to our old apartment. Heck, I used to read Folio, which is the trade magazine of magazine publishing, just for the oh-so-meta frisson of it! So as soon as my next Google Adsense check comes in (thanks for clicking on those ads, by the way!) I'm buying Kathleen's book (I'm going to buy it from the link on FI, but I'm linking here to Amazon so you can read the great reviews it got). I'm never going to be a fashion designer — I'm not suited for it — so reading her book will just be pure geeky pleasure.

Oh, and the picture above? It's from a series where she shows how welt pockets are done in industrial sewing and gives instruction on how you can make a jig to do something similar (if not exactly the same) yourself. Awesome.

Stunt Dress (Don't Try This At Home)

Valentine's Dress

As you may or may not know, I recently wrote a book about love words in other languages (That's Amore). As part of the giant publicity blitz for said book (you may have also heard me on the radio in Michigan and Albany, NY), there was a short feature in Chicago Magazine about it. With a photo (of me, not the book jacket). For which the photographer asked if I could wear something red.

Well, that, of course, was like a flag (of the same color) to a bull: why not, I reasoned (although I'm not sure if "reason" really came into it), go all-out and make a Valentine's-themed dress? Something I'd never wear in civilian life, but would be fun for a photo shoot? I'm not usually a fan of stunt clothing, but this seemed easy enough to do, so I did it.

The fabric is Alexander Henry "Tattoo Hearts" (sadly, no longer available in the red colorway from eQuilter, but the buttercream is now on sale …) and the pattern is Simplicity 4532, which was quite easy to make.

Here's a closeup of the bodice:

Valentine's Dress

Now, I probably won't wear this dress very much (not even today, because even though it's Valentine's there's about a foot of snow outside). I might even cut it down for a skirt, which would be more wearable. But making it was a fun way to spend a few hours, certainly …

not exactly what is usually meant by "basket case"

1940s basketweave dress

Beth sent me (I don't want to tell you how long ago) this link to The University of Virginia Collection of Historic Dress … well worth spending a little while (by "little while", of course, I mean "the rest of the working day") clicking around it.

This dress is, quite simply, heart-stoppingly gorgeous.

1940s basketweave dress

Wouldn't you want to wear this with yellow satin shoes and clutch, and (of course) yellow diamonds? Or at least citrines?

I hope someone who's attending the Oscars decides to wear something like this. Maybe I should start posting "Oscar Dress Suggestions 2007". Send me links and I will!

Secret Lives of Dresses Vol. 11

secret lives of dresses 11

"Oh, honey," is what I want to say. I want somebody to say "oh, honey, I know, I know," to her, and pat her on the back, and bring her a cup of tea. I want someone to hand her a tissue, and I want someone to take her to the movies, and I want someone to understand her as well as I do.

I don't want her to be falling asleep with the radio on, shows she doesn't even like, just because she can't fill up the house with only her own voice. I don't want her to be eating one solitary, unwinking egg, dinner after lunch after breakfast after dinner, just because washing up more than that one pan and that one plate and that one fork is too much for her to handle. I don't want her refrigerator to have only eggs and milk on the verge of turning in it, but I also don't want her to be driving to the next town over to do her grocery shopping, just because she can't face one more too-familiar face screwed up into that "I don't know what to say" grimace. I don't want any of that.

I don't want her to be sitting there, striking matches, just for their sweet sharp sulfurous smell, or lighting one of the cigarettes left in the pack just to watch the lazy arabesques of the smoke as it rises. I don't want her to be setting two places out of habit, and then standing there, staring at the other place. And yet I don't want her to wearily put that other plate and napkin away, either.

I don't want her to stand over the phone as it rings, and then snatch for it just as it stops. I don't want to hear her say "Nothing. I'm fine." to the person on the line, or "Tuesday's not good for me. Wednesday — no, not Wednesday either; maybe next week." I don't want her to pick up the receiver and then put it down again, realizing that there's no number to call.

I don't want her to fold the laundry and then, crying, dump it all back in the basket, furiously unmatching those socks. I don't want her to hang up that coat and then throw it over the back of the chair again, or to move those boots from the doorway to the closet and back, over and over.

I don't want her to pick up the book that was on the arm of the chair, and read the right-hand page over and over again. I don't want her to flip the calendar back to May again.

I don't want her to sit there with that watch pressed against her ear, listening to the ticking. I don't want her turning that lucky piece over and over in her hands.

I don't want her to pass by me in the closet, reaching for that black cotton shirtdress again. I don't want her to jerk her comb through her hair, not even looking in the mirror. I don't want her not to notice that she's wearing two different shoes. I don't want her to notice that other people have.

I don't want her to be so bereft. I don't like that there's nothing I can do. And I especially don't like knowing that there's nothing anyone can do.

I want there to be something to do.

Fabric Desensitization Therapy

Because I'm really, really serious about this plan of only sewing bright yellow, gray, grass green, orange, and baby blue this summer (okay and maybe a teeny bit of red, which I guess means that I'm only really giving up pink, which I'm tired of, and purple, which I never wear anyway …)

Where was I?

Okay, the plan is to look at a LOT of fabric, and then that will dull my senses and I won't just buy the shiny things that catch my eye, like this one, which I don't even know WHY I like, or what I would make out of it:

people fabric

I think I'm liking the joke of "the man in the gray flannel suit-dress" … but that's not really justification.

I also don't have any justification for this:

fishes fabric

I guess it's just the idea of turning yourself into a koi pond. It just seems so … peaceful.

Of course, this one is perfect, and fits my "plan":

gleam fabric

But for some reason I'm not tempted to buy it right now. I guess the desensitization plan is working TOO well …